St. Justin, Martyr

St. Justin, Martyr
2 Timothy 1:1-3,6-12  +  Mark 12:18-27
June 1, 2016

“To you I lift up my eyes who are enthroned in heaven.”

Psalm 123, from which today’s Responsorial is taken, is one of a collection of fifteen psalms.  Each of them—Psalms 120-134—begins with the same title:  in the New American Bible, “A song of ascents.”

It’s significant that the word “ascents” is plural.  Each of these psalms is not a “song of ascent”, akin to the Ascension of Jesus, or the Assumption of Mary, as if the ascent takes place in one fell swoop.  The fact that the psalmist is talking about “ascents” in the plural connotes that there are discrete stages or steps within the entire ascent:  one ascends, and then stops, and then continues again, and so on.  In St. Augustine of Hippo’s exposition of the first of these fifteen psalms, he meditates on this image of the ascent of the spiritual life taking place in discrete steps, saying:

“Now ascents, or steps, can be used for either going up or going down, but the steps that appear in these psalms represent people going up.  We too are to ascend, but we must not try to climb with our bodily feet; rather should we remember what was written in another Psalm: ‘God arranges ascents in His heart, in the valley of weeping, to the place He has appointed’ [Psalm 84:5-6].”

Referring to those two verses, St. Augustine notes how the Word who “was made Flesh, and dwelt among us” “came down to you, but in such wise that He remained in Himself; He came down to you so that for you He might become a valley of weeping, but He remained in Himself so that He might be for you the mountain of your ascent.”  In other words, in His humanity, the Word descends to fallen man, so that fallen man, through Christ’s Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension might ascend to God.

But the Doctor of Grace also wants his listeners to see how they themselves are meant to share in the activity of Christ according to both of His natures.  To do this, he turns to the vision of the Old Testament patriarch, saying:  “Jacob saw a vision of ladders, and on those ladders some were shown to him mounting and others coming down; he saw the movement in both directions.[1]  We may perhaps think that the climbers he saw were those making progress, and those coming down were backsliders, because this is in fact what we find in the people of God:  that some make progress and others fall away.

“The ladders may possibly suggest these, but perhaps it is better to think that all those on the ladders, whether ascending or descending, are good people; for it was no accident that the text spoke of some as descending, not as falling down.  There is a vast difference between descending and falling, for it was because Adam fell that Christ descended.  … the one fell through pride, the other descended in mercy.”

“… there are many holy people who imitate him by descending to us, and have done so in the past. … And this was because Christ also, by being born and suffering, made Himself such that people could talk about Him; for humans easily talk about another human.  Can any mortal talk about God, as God truly is?  But men and women readily speak about someone human like themselves.  If great people were to come down to little ones and yet speak to them only of him who is great, it was necessary for him who was great to become little himself, so that great human teachers could speak of him to little people.  And this he did.”[2]

[1] See Genesis 28:12.
[2] St. Augustine of Hippo, Exposition of Psalm 119.

Jacob ladder